Born on a farm in Virginia on April 12, 1777, Clay practiced law in Virginia and Kentucky before embarking on a political career. He represented Kentucky both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives and was a guiding force in American political life. He served as Speaker of the House of Representatives (as a Democratic Republican) from 1811-20 and again from 1823-24. He advocated U.S. entry into the War of 1812 with such nationalistic fervor that he earned himself the sobriquet “War Hawk.” Clay also played a role in the negotiation of that war’s peace as one of five commissioners who drafted the Treaty of Ghent. Representing the state of Kentucky in the U.S. Congress, Clay eloquently promoted the “American System,” his plan to support domestic industry and agriculture (and reduce dependence on imports) through improved transportation routes, a protective tariff, and a national bank. In 1820, he negotiated the passage of the first of the three pieces of legislation that earned him the titles of the “Great Pacificator” and the “Great Compromiser.” The Missouri Compromise, the first piece of legislation, soothed the anxieties of both Southern and Northern factions by maintaining a balance between the number of states that permitted slavery and those that prohibited slavery. Clay was unsuccessful in his bid to become presidential candidate of the Democratic Republican Party in 1824. He then gave his support to John Quincy Adams and when Adams won the election, he appointed Clay secretary of state. Clay again failed in his bids to become the presidential candidate of the National Republican Party in 1832 and of the Whig Party in 1844. His opposition to the annexation of Texas—because the state’s entry into the Union would have upset the balance of slave and free states—cost him the presidential election of 1844. Nonetheless, he remained a guiding force in American political life, exercising leadership in both the House and the Senate. Currier is known to have produced at least three Whig banners for the 1844 election. This example features oval portraits, framed in laurel, of Whig presidential and vice-presidential candidates Henry Clay (left) and Theodore M. Frelinghuysen (right). “The Nation’s Choice For President & Vice President” is inscribed on a banderole below the portraits. An eagle and several American flags appear in a burst of light above the portraits, as does the campaign slogan “Justice to Harry of the West.” The engraving depicts Henry Clay addressing the Senate. Daniel Webster is seated to the left of Clay and John C. Calhoun is to the left of the Speaker’s chair. A Jeffersonian Republican, Clay advocated the gradual abolition of slavery. (In his will, Clay freed the slaves of Ashland, his Kentucky plantation.) He was active in the movement to resettle freed slaves in Liberia, which was led by the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Colour of the United States (or, American Colonization Society), of which he was a founding member. Clay’s efforts to balance the rights of free and slave states postponed the outbreak of the Civil War. With South Carolina’s Senator John C. Calhoun, Clay drafted his second piece of compromise legislation that enabled the passage of the 1833 tariff, thus averting the Nullification Crisis. The third compromise bill to which Clay lent his eloquence was the Compromise of 1850. With orators Daniel Webster and Stephen Douglas, Clay argued for tolerance among factions and for the preservation of the Union. At the end of his famous speech of February 6, 1850, Clay prayed that he would not live to see the nation torn apart by civil war. In an American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 interview, Mrs. William Price, a Texas pioneer, recounts stories told by her Kentuckian father about the state’s famous native son:
I implore, as the best blessing which Heaven can bestow upon me upon earth, that if the direful and sad event of the dissolution of the Union shall happen, I may not survive to behold the sad and heart-rending spectacle.
“On the Compromise Resolutions,” speech before the U.S. Senate, February 5 and 6, 1850, The Life and Speeches of Henry Clay (Littleton, Colorado: Fred B. Rothman, 1987), 2: 664.
It was in the year that my father came to Texas that Henry Clay made his last great speech when the Missouri Compromise again was the subject of debate, in this speech he won the name of “The Pacificator.” It was thought to be the cause of his death, the effort he put forth in his failing health. It is enough to tell you that the followers of this man honored and admired him fro [sic] his attempt in the troublesome days before the Civil War to help to hold his state in the Union.
“Mrs. William Price,” Marlin, Texas, Miss Effie Cowan, interviewer, circa 1936-1940. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940
- Search Today in History on Henry Clay; many days feature information on this statesman.
- Search on Henry Clay in America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets to view ditties such as “Vermont Whig Song” and “Cling to the Union.”
- Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music has twenty-five songs that address the 1844 election including “Clay and Freylinghuysen, a Whig Song” and “A Song for the Man, a Henry Clay Ballad.”
- The Henry Clay Family Papers are in the custody of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. Visit the online manuscript collection Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years, a ninety-document selection representing the broad range of materials held by the division. Search the collection on Henry Clay, or browse the item list or one of the thematic groupings such as Congress, Law, and Politics.
- America’s First Look into the Camera, Daguerrotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1864 includes a section with a series of portraits of African Americans who emigrated to Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society.
- View the notes for John C. Calhoun’s and Daniel Webster’s speeches from the debate over Henry Clay’s draft resolutions, collectively known as the Compromise of 1850, in the Memory section of the exhibition American Treasures of the Library of Congress.
- Search the collection A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 to peruse the records and acts of Congress. The collection presently affords access to Congressional Journals covering the period from 1774 to 1875.
- For more material on the movement to abolish slavery, go to the Abolition section of African American Odyssey or the Abolition section of The African-American Mosaic.
- Maps of Liberia, 1830-1870 includes twenty maps from the American Colonization Society (ACS), organized in 1817 to resettle free black Americans in West Africa. These maps show early settlements in Liberia, indigenous political subdivisions, and some of the building lots that were assigned to settlers.
- Primary Documents in American History includes links to materials digitized from the Library’s collections that supplement and enhance the study of these crucial documents. View, for example, the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850.